Born and raised in South Africa, long-time polo player Joe Henderson is the epitome of the seasoned professional in the sport. Playing in locations across the world, Henderson has accomplished great feats in his polo career and developed a keen sense of horsemanship along the way. Now, with over 50 years in the saddle under his belt, Henderson looks to explore new territory under the polo umbrella by joining Umpires LLC as the new Assistant Director.
With Fergus Gould recently taking on the role of Executive Director of Umpires LLC, his search for a new addition to the team was critical. The role of the Assistant Director is to provide support to the Executive Director in management of Umpires LLC, help teach and guide the umpires, communicate Umpires LLC’s important initiatives and missions to other departments within the USPA, and much more. Henderson will be stationed in South Florida during the winter months to handle day-to-day operations while Gould manages umpires in California.
Gould, understanding how vital this position is to Umpires LLC, discussed how he landed on Henderson. “I wanted somebody who had excellent knowledge of the game. Joe and I have known each other for a while. We both played in California and against each other in Calgary in some high goal up there. I’ve always enjoyed Joe’s perspective on the game. I’ve seen him coach players and teams and I was really impressed with his philosophy on the sport. That was probably the thing that really gave him the edge.”
Polo was a family affair for Henderson growing up. His father achieved a 5-goal handicap, and his uncle held a 6-goal handicap. Several of Henderson’s cousins also played and he himself began playing as a 10-year-old. “We used to ride our horses out to the polo field on the weekends, play them Saturday and Sunday, and ride them the two hours home,” he recalled. “We didn’t have trucks and trailers back then, so we had to ride them to the field.”
His passion for the sport increasing exponentially over the years, Henderson knew he wanted to pursue a career in polo. “All I wanted to do was play polo,” he shared. “There were no professionals in South Africa. That wasn’t an option for me. The only place that you could try to make a life was in the U.S. or England, and the U.S. was year-round.” Encouraged by his father to move to the United States, at 20-years-old, Henderson landed in Detroit, Michigan, and worked his way up beginning as a groom. Not long after, Henderson went West, moving to Los Angeles, California, for an opportunity to play. It was there that Henderson learned how to play in the arena and grew to become skilled in that setting.
Henderson joins Umpires LLC following a long-career competing in California, Florida, Canada and England. ©David Lominska
While on the West Coast, Henderson played at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club (Carpinteria, California) and in the desert at Eldorado Polo Club and Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. He also made occasional winter trips to Florida and played in England a few times as well. Before taking on his new position, Henderson split his time between California and Calgary, Canada.
In his career as a professional player, Henderson has compiled an impressive list of victories, including the Pacific Coast Open (1986), C.V. Whitney Cup (1987), America Cup (1986, 1987), United States Arena Handicap (1986), North American Cup (1988, 1997, 1999, 2006) and the Bronze Trophy (1993).
Henderson also has received notable recognitions and awards such as the Seymour H. Knox Award for being the Most Valuable Player of the 1993 U.S. Open Polo Championship as well as the 1996 Hugo Dalmar Award for exemplifying sportsmanship on and off the field.
After over 40 years in the sport, however, Henderson recognized a need for change in his life. “I realize that there’s not that many team owners that want to hire a 61-year-old polo pro, they’d rather hire a 25-year-old polo pro,” he shared. “I was just at a point where I still was loving it, I was getting by, but your future prospects are limited.” Eager to still be involved in the sport, Henderson’s vast wealth of knowledge and depth of experience has prepared him well for his next career in polo as Assistant Director of Umpires LLC. “This is the natural progression to still be involved in the sport that I love, but just from a different perspective,” Henderson shared. “It came at a perfect time. Umpiring has gotten so much better in the last 10 years. The bottom line is that better umpiring makes for better polo.” Recognizing the growth that has already taken place, Henderson hopes to help Umpires LLC positively evolve further in any way he can by emphasizing teamwork and collaboration. He added, “If there is room for improvement, we can collectively find a new path.”
No stranger to being behind the whistle, Henderson has plenty of direct experience to add to his resume that has prepared him for his new position at Umpires LLC. “I’m a certified umpire,” he noted. “Most of my career was before we had professional umpires. The pros had to umpire in the past, you would play your game and then you’d have to go and umpire. I’ve done my fair share of umpiring polo games over the last 40 years or so. It’s just never been on the professional level. Now, as opposed to being inside the field, I’ll be on the outside.”
The USPA is thrilled to welcome Joe Henderson to Umpires LLC and is looking forward to working alongside him in the future.